olive isbell

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Twenty-two year old Olive Isbell cradled a loaded rifle in her arms and scanned the hilly landscape surrounding the adobe school where she taught at the Santa Clara Mission in California.  From far off she could hear a gun spit in swift five-syllable defiance and she readied herself for a potential attack on the building.  Twenty preoccupied students toiled away at the books and lessons in front of them.  The exchange of gunfire was so routine it barely disturbed their studies.

The mission was under fire from the Mexican Army who were trying to reclaim land they believed belong to them.  Settlers scattered throughout the area had converged on the site for protection.  More than one hundred and ninety-five people with their wagon trains and pack animals spread out over various sections of the mission were busy loading weapons and preparing themselves for a fight.  A number of those people had contracted typhoid fever.  They were weak and at times unable to work and desperately needed medical attention.

Olive had gathered the healthy children together at a stable on the far side of the compound.  It was her way of keeping the youngsters occupied and safe during the uprising.  The one room, makeshift school house was 15 feet square, thick with flies and flees, dirt floors, and smelled of manure.  A few crude tables and benches made from scraps of wood were used as desks and chairs for the pupils who ranged in age from 6 to 14 years old.  A fire pit in the center of the room kept the class warm and the smoke from the hearth escaped through a large hole in the roof.

The scant school supplies consisted of five McGuffey Readers, a half a dozen spellers, three arithmetic and geography books.  There were no pencils, pens, or paper.  Olive used a long stick to scratch the alphabet into the dry ground.  Her students practiced writing their letter with seared pieces of charcoal.  Using the palms of their hands as slates they copied their A-B-Cs with the cool, black bits.  Sarah Aram, one of Olive’s students vividly remembered later in her life the “look of the letter E printed on her hand.”

Pupils were enrolled at the Santa Clara Mission school for a two month term in mid-December 1846.  Olive vowed to educate the pioneer class to the best of her ability and protect them from any harm.  The gun that swung from the belt of her gingham dress assured her students they were safe.

Olive was born on October 8, 1824 in Ashtabula, Ohio.  She was one of a family of 15 and a favorite of her uncle, Horace Mann, a leader in American education.  His belief that a “common school education benefited both the individual and the community at large,” had a profound effect on Olive.  She entered the teaching field as a teenager and for several years worked in a variety of schools in the Ohio region.

Olive married Dr. Isaac Chauncey Isbell on March 4, 1844.  Isaac was a medical graduate of the Western Reserve College in Wadsworth.  Four months after the wedding the newlyweds moved to Greenbush.  Isaac established a thriving practice and Olive concentrated on teaching at the local school.  Within two years the pair had saved more than two thousand dollars from their respective jobs.

During that time they encountered numerous people interested in going west to help settle the wild frontier, but neither Isaac or Olive considered moving themselves until they read a circular describing the splendors of California.

Isaac sought help to organize a trip overland from Jacob and George Donner.  The Donners made arrangements for Isaac and Olive to join the Aram-Imus wagon train in Springfield, Illinois.  After purchasing a wagon, team, and supplies the Isbells set out for the Gold Country with a caravan of travelers.  On April 14, 1846, the Isbells covered wagon fell in line with thirty-one other wagons and crossed the Mississippi River near Fort Madison.  Charles Imus and Joseph Aram led the way.  Olive had the utmost faith in Joseph.  He was a well-respected guide and credited with opening the route across the Sierras by way of the Cold Stream and Emigrant Canyon into the Sacramento Valley.

Like most pioneers making the long trip across the country, the journey was arduous.  Hauling themselves and their belongings over the rough water of the Platte River was harrowing.  They endured the tortures of thirst in the Salt Lake Desert and encountered hostile Indians that threatened to end their lives and take their livestock.  The weather at times was uncooperative, cholera overcame some of the pioneers, and many animals were lost to exhaustion.

Although the hardships were overwhelming at times, Olive enjoyed the camaraderie with the other sojourners and the wild game that was in abundance along the trail.  In the evenings the weary men, women, and children would sit around the campfire feasting on roasted turkey and venison stew and share their dreams of life in a new land.

When the Aram-Imus wagon train reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming they met a panicked stricken pioneer and his wife and children charging through the post, warning everyone to turn around and head back in the direction they came.  The people on the frontier beyond the fort were engaged in a war with Mexico.  “Anyone crossing the mountains will be exterminated,” the frantic man announced.

“What shall we do,” Olive recalled asking her husband.  “I started for California and I want to go on,” she recorded in her journal.  Her determination and spirit prompted others to continue the journey as well.  The majority of the wagon trains pressed on, some heading to Oregon and other to the Gold Country.  “When the company separated to head off in different directions there wasn’t a dry eye among us,” Olive recalled years later.  Traveling the rough trail together had made them friends and they departed doubting they would ever see one another again.    

Joseph Aram escorted the wagon train the Isbells were with toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It took 16 days to cross the range and settle on the other side.  No wagons or lives were lost in the process.  As there was no clear trail the company had to make their own roads.  Once they forded the Bear River they made camp in a lush field near the water’s edge.  Olive and the wagon master’s wife tackled the laundry that had piled up and made an interesting discovery when they laid the items out to dry.

“The clothes were heavy with particles of something that glittered in the sun,” Olive noted in her journal.  “What do you suppose it is?” asked Mrs. Aram.  “I think it is isinglass I replied.”  Two years later, when some of the richest deposits were found on Bear River, they decided that they might have had the privilege of being gold discoverers had they known gold when they saw it.

Olive, Isaac, and the other members of the company were led to Sutter’s Fort by a member of Colonel John C. Fremont’s battalion that had been patrolling the trail.  The same officers accompanied the group to the Santa Clara Mission, 150 miles south of the fort, late in October 1846.  The mission was under attack and after unloading the women and children from the wagons and making sure they were safe, the able bodied men with the group joined Fremont’s men in the fighting.  Dr. Isbell was among the recruits willing to do battle with General Sanchez and his growing army.  His time in battle was interrupted when he succumbed to typhoid pneumonia and was forced to return to the mission.

In the midst of nursing her husband back to health and withstanding the exchange of daily gunfire between Fremont’s and Sanchez’s troops, Olive had to wage war against the elements.  Heavy rains drenched the area and strong winds threatened to destroy the mission’s structure.  The wet and cold weather made the residents ill.  Fever overtook them and many died.  With Dr. Isbell’s instruction, Olive helped arrest the sickness and prevented infection from settling in the lungs.  She dealt out more than a hundred doses of medicine a day.  When she wasn’t tending to the ill she was getting ammunition to the soldiers.    

Out-numbered and with supplied dwindling, messengers were dispatched to a military post in Yerba Buena asking for help in rescuing the mission.  A number of Marines and Navy men answered the call and as soon as they arrived, assisted the weary soldiers in fighting back the Mexican army.  Olive tended to the wounded, dressing wounds and removing bullets.

It was while the sick were convalescing that Olive decided to gather all the children in the mission together and start the English-speaking school system.  “It was more my desire to relieve the ailing, sorely tired mothers that I did it,” she later confessed, “more so than to accomplish much in the way of education, for the project was wholly a labor of love.”

The Mexican army laid down their arms and agreed to stop fighting in late December 1846.  A truce was declared on January 3, 1847.  Two months after the fighting stopped, Olive and her still frail husband, along with five other families, relocated to Monterey.  When Dr. Isbell was well enough he resumed his medical practice.  He and Olive also purchased an inn.  The two-story, adobe house called the Washington Hotel, was the first American Hotel in the area.

Olive’s reputation as a teacher and the work she did at the mission prompted local landowners to ask her to establish a school in Monterey.  On the first day of school twenty-five students assembled at a one room class that was located upstairs from the town jail.  Parents were charged $1 a month for their children to attend.  Twenty-six additional pupils enrolled within the first month classes were in session.  The large room was furnished with an adequate number of desks and benches.  Several of the students owned their own readers and spellers and readily shared their materials with the children who did not.  Pencils and paper were offered to everyone free of charge.

More than half the class spoke Spanish only.  Olive spoke no Spanish, but with the assistance of a couple of bilingual students she was able to do her job.

The Monterey School was successful, as was the Washington Hotel, but Dr. Isbell was restless.  In October 1847, he sold their property and ventured into the cattle business.  The couple bought a ranch north of Stockton, California and moved into a new, one room log cabin in the center of the sprawling acreage.

Rumors of gold being found in the streams and riverbeds in the foothills convinced Isaac to leave his wife to find a rich strike.  Olive recalled in her journal the event that sent her husband sprinting towards the gold fields.  “The Wimmer family, who went to Sutter’s Mill in 1848, had passed the winter with us at the mission in 46,” Olive remembered.  “The doctor ushered a new little Wimmer into the world, and altogether the families had kept in as close touch as possible with each other.  Mrs. Wimmer was a native of Georgia, born near gold mines.  Unlike most other Californians, she knew gold when she saw it.  From the beginning of their residence at the mill, particles of something glittering in the water brought into the house had been the subject of much discussion among the workmen.  Each had his opinion as to what it might be, but Mrs. Wimmer from the first said it was gold, only to be laughed at by the men.  Every day when water was poured at the table, there was much joking at what they called “Mrs. Wimmer’s gold,” but despite the fun at her expense she insisted that the sparkles in the water were surely gold.

On the historic morning of January, 1848, Mrs. Wimmer was doing the family washing under a tree.  Seeing Marshall walking slowly toward her, she called:  “What is it, Marshall?”  “I believe it is gold,” he replied.  “Bring it here,” she said, “put it in my suds.  If it comes out bright it is gold.  If it turns black it is not gold.”  The nugget went into the suds and came out bright, as all the world knows.  Numberless stories have been told of what occurred at the mill on that epoch-making morning.  This is the account told to me August 1889, with mind clear and memory good, by the woman who probably knew as much about it as any one not actually present and perhaps remembered it better than some who were.  The fortieth anniversary of the discovery was celebrated that year and the papers were full of a variety of stories concerning it, which brought the facts clearly to Mrs. Isbell’s mind.

“It is true,” she said, “that George Wimmer had picked up a small nugget and showed it to his mother, and that some of the men had found pieces before Marshall saw his, and we old timers never could understand why Marshall was given all the honor of being the discoverer.”       

Not only did Olive keep up with the work around the ranch during the time her husband was off searching for gold, but she furnished provisions and food to travelers passing through as well.  Meals of beef stew, omelets, hot rolls, and coffee with sugar and cream were a $1 each in gold dust.  Chickens sold for $5 each, butter $2 per pound, and eggs were $3 a dozen.  Olive earned additional money making short, calico gowns and petticoats.  The garments were highly sought after by the emigrant and cost two ounces of gold each.

After three years prospecting, Dr. Isbell returned home carrying 80 pounds of gold with him.  One kidney shaped nugget he found weighed seven pounds three ounces.  The valuable nugget was sold to an Englishman in San Francisco who sent it on to the Bank of England to be put on display.

In 1850, the Isbells sold the Stockton ranch and moved back to Ohio.  Ever the vagabond, Dr. Isbell soon left the area with his wife and moved to Texas.

Using the fortune they made in California, the couple purchased yet another ranch and for more than ten years raised hundreds of heads of cattle near the Panhandle.

By mid-1865, the Isbells had returned to California.  They settled in the Ojai Valley in Ventura County.

Dr. Isbell died in 1886 after a tragic horse and buggy accident.  Olive lived out her last years in Santa Paula, tending to the livestock and counseling future teachers on the profession.  She passed away in 1899 at the age of 75.  Historians recognize Olive Mann Isbell as the first American school teacher in California.  Santa Paula city officials celebrated the contribution she made to the field of education by naming a school there in her honor.    

Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.